Mooresville citizens ousted Frank Owens from the town board in 2005 after two terms, the last of which was wracked by controversy and scandal.
He was sent packing rather quietly, considering the political atmosphere and sentiment at the time.
But now, eight years later, he has tossed his hat back in the ring, targeting the Ward 3 seat currently occupied by Mac Herring.
Owens has claimed that he is running for office because Herring voted to saddle Mooresville residents with MI-Connection, a $92.5 million cable company that Owens says the town had no business purchasing. And I fully agree with him on that.
But then Owens decided to get a little nit-picky. He recently went digging through his opponent's 2012 county vehicle-tax records and then broke his neck tattle-telling to the Mooresville Tribune about a $88.86 delinquency on Herring's part, which even a county collections official called “very common.” The Tribune contacted Herring, who paid the tax bill before the article was even published in the paper.
Owens attempted to use this as a chance to show, even further, that Herring is irresponsible with money, stating in the Tribune: “What does it say about a commissioner that uses tax dollars from the town and the county and does not pay all of his county tax dollars?”
Herring's delinquent tax bill was $88.86. If Herring's vote for MI-Connection is Owens' only real talking-point during this campaign, which seems to be the case, then we need to compare apples to apples.
In 2005, Frank Owens rubber-stamped handing a $25 million engineering contract on what would later become an estimated $150 million project to a town-board friend, voting against the recommendation of town engineers who said the expansion of Mooresville's wastewater treatment plant should be completed by a more qualified (and overall less costly) firm.
At one point in Mooresville's history, such a decision would have slid right through, possibly without the public even knowing. But decades of backwoods dealings and good-ol'-boy politics came to an end in the early- to mid-2000s in Mooresville, when the sleepy town was rocked by one scandal after another, all while Owens sat on the town board. With support from the local media and new blood on the board, a new plan was created for the wastewater treatment plant expansion, which meant the overall price was lowered. And the firm that had originally been deemed most qualified by town engineers was given a supervisory role over the former board's choice of CH2M Hill.
But that didn't happen before the town's manager – apparently based primarily on commissioners' persuasion, including (by then former) Commissioner Owens – fired the town's engineer and utilities director, both of whom had vehemently stood up for the best interest of the town's taxpayers against Owens and his ilk … and in spite of personal risk. One commissioner said that the personnel files of the two employees were “completely empty” of any prior disciplinary action at the time of their firings. For more on the CH2M Hill scandal, click here and here.
But the CH2M Hill controversy was just the tip of the iceberg.
Also during Owens' last four years as commissioner:
- In 2001, Mooresville's librarian was indicted and later pleaded guilty to embezzlement for using public money for her private use. But her indictment came in spite of an apathetic Mooresville Town Board and only after an activist blew the whistle and persistently demanded that something be done about it. She also went to the press. An independent review by the Mooresville Tribune raised the possibility that tens of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise had been stolen from or through the library for half-a-dozen years before the indictment.
- In 2003, the town's former internal auditor, whose job it was to help prevent financial mismanagement and possible theft like that which had occurred at the library just a couple years prior, stated publicly for the first time that the town lacked financial controls and that her detection of those deficiencies – and her insistence that the town institute change – is likely what led to her firing after only eight months on the job.
- In 2004, the then-town manager fired the new town librarian, supposedly for spending more than town policy allowed for a meal. This resulted in another black eye on the town because of widespread scrutiny from newspapers and local television news about the overspending habits of Mooresville's government, primarily via travel and dining expenses.
- In 2005, despite the town having a full-time auditor, a finance director and an outside accounting firm that annually conducted an audit of the town's books, it once again took a concerned citizen – through his own volunteer financial probe – to identify a shortage in the inventory at the Mooresville Municipal Golf Course, which was already operationally bathed in red ink. A follow-up audit of the golf inventory showed about $5,000 of missing merchandise from the golf course pro shop. An editorial in the Mooresville Tribune stated: “The litany of mismanagement gets longer and longer, our town commissioners say little about it, and you, the taxpayers, foot the bill.”
- Also in early 2006 - just after Owens was voted off the town board - the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visited the Town of Mooresville and confiscated town computers. To date, no one knows what the FBI was looking for, but most assume it had something to do with the town board, against procedure, granting its friend's engineering firm the lucrative $25 million engineering contract for the wastewater treatment plant expansion. One former commissioner said the FBI told commissioners that the agents were looking into actions of prior town-board members. He said he was specifically asked by the FBI if he thought former commissioners were receiving “kick-backs” for preferential awarding of contracts. “I don't believe they received money for it,” he said, “but it certainly showed poor judgment.”
And now word is finally public about a 2001 FBI investigation into Owens for public corruption, following a state probe into a Mooresville gambling hut.
One former public official, during an interview about the investigation, said: “Frank Owens has a pattern of abusing power, whether it's as a police officer or a commissioner.
“We have gotten past the yahoo-style of government and crookedness and the 'you-aren't-my-friend-anymore' high-school politics.”
I could not agree more. A vote for Frank Owens on Tuesday is a vote to move Mooresville backwards. It's really just that simple.
Two years ago, commenters on this blog resurrected the issue of Owens' gambling and the 2001 FBI investigation. Owens contacted me via private message on Facebook at that time, asking me to remove the comments and to contact him. I did call him, and while stating that he was "just trying to lead a good, Christian life," he insisted that the gambling accusations were false. He offered to meet with me and tell “the truth” about what "had really happened." I saw no need; after all, he was a private citizen at the time, which meant that whatever had gone on in his private life was no longer the public's concern. Still, his behavior while he was a commissioner was and is fair-game for public scrutiny.
Now that he's running again for public office, the fact that he was investigated by the FBI for public corruption has become relevant for reporting; Owens' personal character is once again the public's business.
But Owens has clammed up again. He apparently doesn't want to talk about the scandal anymore; he still has not responded to Report questions sent in mid-October about his involvement in illegal gambling and the 2001 FBI investigation and grand jury. And the only thing that has changed from two years ago, when he wanted to talk about it, until now is that he's eyeballing a seat on Mooresville's town board.
Yes, Mac Herring, the Ward 3 incumbent, voted for MI-Connection during his first term on the town board. He made, in my opinion, a multi-million-dollar mistake. And I don't take that lightly. But if Herring's vote was so heinous, why did no one challenge him when he sought (and won) re-election in 2009? If Owens' motivation is to remove Herring from office to, as he claims, protect the taxpayers from a tax-and-spender, why did he wait another four years to do it? He could have run against Herring in 2009, but he didn't. In fact, no one did. Herring ran unopposed.
I was here, with a front-row seat, when Owens was last a commissioner. He and other board members gave the town one black eye after another. Far from being apologetic, they banned together and thumbed their noses at the public, over and over. Visits from SBI and FBI agents became almost commonplace. Shameful reports by newspapers and television news stations were plentiful; in fact, the material that Owens and other town-board members gave the Mooresville Tribune was enough to fill a wall with awards for investigative reporting and community service. The town became a laughingstock, notorious for scandal and controversy.
It was an ugly, politically restless period in Mooresville's history. I don't want to see it repeated, nor do I believe that anyone who was on the board at that time deserves a second chance to govern and shape policy in this town.
Herring voted for MI-Connection. But the SBI has not been in Mooresville since he's been a commissioner. The FBI hasn't visited, either, except – in the first few months of Herring's first term – to look into the actions of Owens and his fellow town-board members.
The public is smart enough to draw its own conclusions about that. And come what may on Tuesday.